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On Movies: Powerful '12 Years a Slave' is one of year's best

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 1, 2013 - CHOO-it-tell  EDGE-e-o-for.

That's how you pronounce the name of the star of "12 Years a Slave."

No need to memorize it. You'll get to hear actor Chiwetel Ejiofor's name pronounced -- and mispronounced -- dozens if not hundreds of times between now and  March 2, 2014, when the Academy Awards are handed out in Hollywood. Ejiofor would seem to be a lock for at least a nomination as best actor for the range and passion of his brilliant, heartbreaking performance as a free black man in mid-19th century America who was dragooned into slavery.


The powerful, intensely human "12 Years a Slave" is based on an 1853 autobiographical memoir by Solomon Northrup, who was born free in upstate New York, but as an adult was kidnapped by slave catchers and shipped south. He survived 12 hellish years working in the horrific sugar and cotton plantations of Louisiana.

The film thrusts us in the midst of the lives of slaves in the Deep South, home of the cruelest level of American slavery. The film is brutal, at times, and angry, but never exploitive; there is no false emotion, and doesn't need to be. "12 Years a Slave" rings true as a bell. It is a magnificent movie, one of the best of the year.

We meet Solomon on the streets of bourgeois Saratoga Springs, where he is a successful musician, a fiddler, and where he lives in a comfortable house with his wife and two children. He is lured to Washington, D.C., sandwiched by two slave states, by the phony offer of an overly lucrative engagement in the nation's capital by two men who pretend to be showmen, but actually are the intermediaries for the slave catchers that roamed border and even free states in the era. They seldom cared if the black men and women they claimed as runaway slaves were actually slaves, and apparently not many other Americans did, either.

The scenes of early captivity are shocking and humbling. At one point, in a stunning cinematographic move, the camera rises from the filthy slave pens where Northrup is being held to show in the distance the old dome of the capitol building, constructed in great part by slaves.

To be born a slave, and live your life as one, would have been a terrible  thing, and it would be foolish and presumptuous to say there was something worse about what happened to Solomon Northrup. But there does seem to be an added cruelty in his plight: a free man, with a family and a good life and livelihood, waking up one morning after a night on the town in chains in a dungeon, kidnapped and shackled and beaten.

His protests that he is not a slave are met with scorn and derision, and he is quickly shipped in irons to a plantation in Louisiana. He is given the slave name of "Platt."

Early in Northrup's bitter Southern exile, his master is a relatively young plantation owner named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) who seems at times to doubt the morality of slavery, but he cannot deny the economics of the system and its effect on him. He is broke, and when a reason comes to get Northrup/Platt off the plantation, he does not ship him back north to freedom with his family. Instead, he sells him to a nasty piece of work named Epps (Michael Fassbender).

Epps is a mentally erratic, Bible-quoting cotton-plantation master who burns with anger and hatred for blacks, in part because he has an almost overpowering erotic and perversely romantic attraction to a young slave named Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o). She stiffly submits to his rough advances, but refuses to look him in the eye. A peak in the narrative comes when Epps, drunk, enraged at what he imagines is Patsey's betrayal of him, forces Platt to make a terrible choice involving the brutal whipping of the young slave woman.

Nyong'o gives a strong performance, tough yet vulnerable to her circumstances. Also notable, in a film with exemplary acting from beginning to end, are Paul Dano as an angry overseer and Brad Pitt as a Canadian abolitionist who has a chance to set Platt free.

Michael Fassbender is mesmerizing as an emotionally weak but willful man given to sudden violent outbursts, usually directed at the slaves on his plantation. He justifies his cruelty to his slaves -- when he bothers do so at all -- by proclaiming that they are his private property, and he can do with them what he will.

This superb film was directed by Steve McQueen ("Shame"), like Ejiofor a Britisher of African descent. The screenplay was by John Ridley. The filmmakers never let the audience forget that slavery had an economic underpinning and that slaves were worth a lot of money, hundreds of dollars and, at times, even a thousand or more.

Slaves, slaveholders believed, were too valuable to set free, an attitude that, recently published historical research suggests, they shared with Thomas Jefferson -- who also, on occasion, beat his slaves, or had them beaten, for running away or shirking their duties. It wasn't just the slaves themselves that entered into the accounting of slaveholders, including Jefferson. The offspring of the adult slaves were valuable too, to keep as workers or to sell. At its core, slavery was all about the money, even when it came to the children.